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Adventures in Government - Criminal Justice Reform

Judge Pyle speaking at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church

Judge Pyle speaking at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church

Last night I attended a presentation at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, which apparently invites quarterly speakers to discuss social issues. This quarter, the topic was criminal justice reform.

I honestly don't remember how or when I learned about this presentation, but it was on my schedule, so I went ahead and attended. I know that the criminal justice system in this country is pretty ineffective, so I hoped to get some insight in how to combat that problem.

The meeting featured two speakers: Rebecca Fealk (from American Friends Service Committee) and Judge Charles Pyle (a retired U.S. Magistrate Judge). Rebecca spoke about statistics and laws, showing how the prison system fails to do what it's supposed to do. Judge Pyle spoke about people; the essential humanity of most inmates, and what judges can do to humanize them.

Of particular interest to me was the privatized prison system: how expensive this system is to maintain, and how backwards the incentives are given how the contracts are set up.

One story in particular stood out to me: One of the ways prisons get privatized is by switching to a private health care service in the prison. However, after Arizona switched to private health care for prison inmates, prison deaths began to rise dramatically, and it didn't seem like the state was actually saving any money in the process. Given that the whole argument for privatization is that for-profit businesses are more efficient and, therefore, more cost-effective than public institutions, this seemed like a problem.

Luckily, in the law that privatized prison health care in Arizona, the legislators included an oversight provision. Basically, the provision required the state to investigate the health care provider regularly to see if they were doing their job effectively and efficiently. The state had basically ignored this provision for a long time, but people put pressure on them to look into it, so eventually they did.

They discovered that, in fact, the private health services were more expensive than public health care and less effective. Their solution? Get rid of the provision in the law that required them to investigate. Rather than address the problem, it was swept under the rug.

Which, really, is a parable for the prison system in a nutshell: every problem is swept under the rug. Our prison population is skyrocketing, even as crime is going down. Things like mandatory minimum sentencing ensure that the prison populations continue to grow, and the lack of opportunity felons face upon release makes their return to prison highly likely.

And nothing is likely to change. The prison system is very profitable for some people, so they advocate to keep things the way they are. Politicians can't get elected if they appear to be soft on crime, and most citizens are happy to go about their lives not thinking about prisons or the people within them.

Unfortunately, I can only scratch the surface of this problem here. I have a few thoughts on how to start fixing the prison system, but none of them are simple. Criminal justice, like most real problems, is a complex issue.

There's no shortage of studies out there on the subject, if you're interested. The best first step I can recommend, though, is simply to remember that the people in our prison system are people. Most of them suffer from substance abuse, mental illness, or poverty.

Judge Pyle, in his presentation, included this quote from Gregory Boyle:

Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.

The solution to our nation's prison problem starts with empathy. All else flows from there.

-Charlie